gladwin may not seem like a frequent destination for a world traveler, but in the case of Valeria Bonaparte of Buenos Aires, Argentina, it has become a home away from home. Georgann Schuster and her husband, Earl of Gladwin, have maintained a close relationship with Valeria since they welcomed her as part of an international student exchange program in 1984.
“Her birthday falls right around Thanksgiving, so every year when our family gets together for a festive meal, we call her,” Georgann said. “She calls us ‘mum and dad’ which really shows how close we have become.”
Since her first visit, Valeria and the Schusters have reunited for family visits and even family weddings.
“The last time I was here was 20 years ago,” said Valeria. “I came for Allison’s wedding, but you know, when you have a real connection, you can’t see how much time goes by.”
Earl even witnessed Valeria’s wedding in Buenos Aires.
Georgann and Earl are both retired teachers and learned about the Youth for Understanding program while teaching. They were encouraged to participate in the program because of their connections to the school. As teachers, they would be able to better help acclimatize exchange students to both local schools and the community.
Youth for Understanding (YFU) is an international educational exchange organization. A network of over 50 independent national organizations around the world, YFU representatives work together to advance learning across cultures. Each year, YFU exchanges approximately 4,500 students around the world.
In addition to Valeria, Georgann and Earl have hosted several other exchange students through Youth for Understanding. They welcomed their first pupil around 1979, and their last pupil at the end of the 1980s.
“Valeria was not our first student,” Georgann said. “Our first was a boy from Brazil, then Valeria, then the boy’s sister from Brazil. The last two students we had were from Japan. We have also maintained a very strong bond with the Brazilian family.
When Valeria received her letter from the program informing her of where she would be staying, she wasn’t exactly sure where he was. She knew most of the big cities in America, although Gladwin was not one of them.
“I was very excited to go to Gladwin, although I needed a map to see where it was,” said Valeria.
One of the benefits of the exchange program was that it taught Georgann’s children about the world outside of what they learned in school. Her two youngest, Allison and Jason, grew up with each of these exchange students and learned about their foreign cultures at home.
“One of the things I remember my daughter said really impressed me,” Georgann said. “She said, ‘I learned that different is not wrong, different is just different’ and I thought ‘okay, we did something right’.”
Thirty-seven years after visiting Gladwin for the first time, Valeria has returned to catch up and explore the city. While in Gladwin, she visited former Gladwin High School classmates and friends she had made.
“It feels good to see places that I remember from before,” said Valeria. “I kept in touch with friends [from Gladwin] and it was very nice to see them.
She also stopped at many familiar businesses and took many photos downtown. Georgann took Valeria to see part of the paved trail along the Cedar River, and she was able to cheer on the Flying Gs on Gladwin’s return parade.
Valeria spent a little over a week in Gladwin, with the exception of a day trip to Ann Arbor to visit Allison and her family, a day in Frankenmuth, and a trip to the Sleeping Bear Dunes. It landed in Michigan on the night of October 13 and took off on the morning of October 21. Valeria’s recent visit to Gladwin was part of a larger journey across America.
From Argentina, she flew to California to visit her daughter, then to Michigan. After visiting the Schuster family, she flew to New York and met her daughter again to spend time enjoying the city. After New York, Valeria will travel to Boston to meet a friend, then she will fly to Miami. From Miami, she will return home. His entire trip will last five weeks in total.
On Valeria’s last night in Michigan, the Schuster family gathered for a farewell dinner.
“The last meal won’t be the fun dinner we all enjoyed upon arrival,” Georgann said. “We will cherish the time we spent with her here, even last night we spent time driving to see how many Halloween lights and decorations we could find. It’s the little things that really mattered to her.
A reunion party was organized for Valeria on Sunday October 17th at Riverwalk Place in Gladwin and many of her friends came out to celebrate her return.
“There were a lot of emotions back then, and when I leave it will be very hard,” said Valeria.
One of Valeria’s friends, Joe Kreusch, met her and a few others at the Piper’s Pub on her last night on the town. Her friends were all surprised to see her again after 37 years and having spent only six months in Gladwin in 1984.
She has always been a traveler and has visited many countries such as Egypt, Morocco, Italy and Israel, to name a few.
“I love to travel,” said Valeria. “I come from a very big city, and coming here was very different. But I made a lot of friends, and they touched me a lot. With technology, I am able to stay in touch, although a face-to-face visit will always be the best. Even though we don’t have the opportunity to celebrate or see each other often, they will always be in my heart and in my thoughts.